This article first appeared in the PPPL Weekly of October 6, 2014, and is reproduced with the kind permission of Kitta MacPherson, director of communications for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
The Princeton University staffer looked squarely at Angela Capece and asked her question:
“What kind of research do you do?”
The audience, perched in a conference room in an office tower overlooking main campus, listened closely as Capece, an associate research physicist at PPPL, launched into a simple explanation of fusion and how certain experiments are aiding its advancement.
More questions followed. Over the next few minutes, Capece conveyed some of the details of her work and the gist of a research paper that she will be presenting later this month at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics. The members of the audience, all campus communicators, had to pay attention. Within minutes, they knew they were going to be required to write a portion of a news story all about Capece’s work.
The science communicators — 15 University staff from departments across campus — were participating in a workshop called “Translating Science and Technology,” part of the Princeton Writes program. The session, led by Kitta MacPherson, director of communications at PPPL, and Steve Schultz, director of communications at Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, was designed to bring a journalist’s eye to the task of translation. Participants were taught how to ask the right kinds of questions for the stories, web posts, and press releases they need to write. They also learned ways to organize and convey technical concepts in a clear, compelling way.
“I so much enjoy learning about faculty research and writing about it for a broad audience that I wanted to help colleagues around the University feel more confident in doing the same sort of thing,” said Schultz, who, along with MacPherson, has worked as the lead science writer for the University and as a science journalist. “It turned out to be very rewarding because the participants were all so accomplished in what they do and brought so many good ideas and questions to the conversation.”
Though daunting, Schultz said, translating scientific and technical information for lay readers is a critical need at a research institution such as Princeton. In day-to-day operations and in external communications, engaging others in the work of the University helps move projects forward and advance the University’s mission, he added.
Capece, whose current research adds to the understanding of how lithium conditions the volatile edge of fusion plasmas, enjoys talking about fusion and research and explaining it to the non-scientific public as much as to fellow researchers. “I thought the workshop was enlightening from the perspective of a researcher, as it helped me understand how science writers approach their story,” she said. “The more I know about what the writer is looking for, the better equipped I am to communicate my message. This is a win for everybody — reader, writer, and researcher.”
The session is the third in a 10-part, yearlong specialized communications curriculum taught primarily by campus communicators. “Each 90-minute session explores a different aspect of telling Princeton’s myriad stories through the written word, addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by various media, genres, processes, and messaging considerations,” said John Weeren, the longtime speechwriter for former University President Shirley M. Tilghman. Weeren founded Princeton Writes a year ago and serves as its director.
In addition to the specialized communications curriculum, the program is offering workshops that cover topics ranging from how to use the written and spoken word effectively to specific challenges, such as taking meeting minutes and crafting recommendation letters.
To register for additional workshops, running between Oct. 10 and Dec. 12, please visit Princeton Writes’ website at https://pwrites.princeton.edu/classes/, which contains a link to the University’s Learning Center, enabling official registration.